Summary: Cordelia returns from her trip with Groo with some pointed questions and an offer for Angel.

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters portrayed here, they remain the property of their respective owners/creators.

Rating: PG-13, for themes.

Time Frame: About a week after the end of "Couplet." (spoiler warning).

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@aol.com) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.




CATALYST


Angel raised the broadsword over his head, and performed a two-handed overhead thrust that he stopped just short of the mat. Stepping back, he removed his left hand from the hilt and began a complex series of thrusts, swings, and parries that took him from one end of the basement to the other. He paused, frowned, and contemplated a new sequence.

The week since Cordelia's departure had been a quiet one: he had spent a great deal of time with Connor, while Wesley worked on the translation of some arcane documents that he had sent away for after obtaining the rare texts at the bookstore. He had been rather close-mouthed about what he was looking for, and Angel had chosen not to press him. Gunn and Fred had been cheerfully handling the relatively light case workload, and the expressions that the two of them generally had upon returning to the hotel had caused Angel to conclude that they were spending most of the time handling each other rather than the cases. He was only mildly annoyed to realize that he was rather happy for them.

Cordelia had been gone for less than a day when Angel realized that he was getting some rather odd looks from the others. He assumed at first that it was due to a misstep in wardrobe or grooming, but a few pointed questions to Lorne had dismissed that possibility. The looks continued over the next few days, and his irritated queries had caused a chorus of denials and a cessation of the attention. . .more or less. He had seen that he was still getting an occasional glance from them when they thought he wasn't looking, and he had finally retreated to the basement in desperation, and to burn off some of the excess energy he had been building up by sitting around not doing much of anything. Except for not thinking about Cordelia, much less about Cordelia with Groo.

Angel frowned, dismissed the not-thought, then started a new sequence, this time with his eyes closed, consciously steering away from the stairs in case someone wandered down: Lorne had come perilously close to his second decapitation in less than a year when he had ventured downstairs without announcing himself the day before. He moved with silent precision for several minutes, then opened his eyes: he was two inches to the left of the spot that he had designated before beginning the sequence. He smiled slightly, and had begun to consider another combination when he heard the sound of slow, deliberate clapping from the stairs. He deliberately paused for a moment to compose himself, then called out, "Welcome back, Cordelia," as he turned around.

Cordelia stood near the bottom of the stairs, watching him with an amused expression on her face. Her face glowed with a recently acquired tan, and she looked visibly more relaxed than she had a week before. She wore no makeup, and she was wearing a loose T-Shirt and worn jeans with tennis shoes.


* She looks perfect * Angel repressed the frown which that particular thought was threatening to provoke, and managed a genuine smile as Cordelia walked over and gave him an uninhibited hug. He remained calm and returned the hug sedately before releasing her and commenting, "I guess the trip went well."

Cordelia smiled and replied, "Best vacation I've ever had. . .drove down the coast, spent a few days getting this tan, did some shopping in San Diego, and finished with some skiing." She looked up into Angel's eyes and added, "Angel, thank you. The stuff we do is important, but sometimes you just need a few days to get away and clear your head, figure things out."

Angel felt a moment of warmth, and dismissed the rather disturbing image of Groo in a ski outfit before responding, "You deserved it, Cordelia. I'm glad you're happy."

Cordelia reached out and squeezed Angel's arm, and he could see sadness in her eyes as she led him over to the bench sitting across from the stairs. They sat down, and both were silent for several seconds before Cordelia sighed and whispered, "I'm sorry, Angel."

Angel raised an eyebrow and replied, "For what? Not inviting me to go sunbathing in San Diego with you and Groo? I'll get over it."

Cordelia chuckled, then smacked him on the arm before responding, "No, you big jerk: I'm talking about how I treated you while I was pursuing my big plan to com-shuck Groo into a coma." Angel suppressed a wince, but Cordelia was continuing without noticing Angel's reaction: "I was blathering on and on about wanting to end my dry spell-to you. Pretty insensitive, even by my standards at Sunnydale High. And sending you to get the potion: hard to get lower than sending your best friend on a condom run. Anyway, I was a jerk, and you just sat there and took it, and ended up by doing something really wonderful for Groo and me. I'm sorry I didn't see it right away."

Angel shrugged with a casual manner that most definitely did not reflect his actual emotional state, and smiled gently at Cordelia as he commented, "Everything worked out: I got to spend time with Connor, and you-you had a nice vacation. No need to waste any time worrying about it."

Angel began to stand, and Cordelia reached out and grasped his arm again, causing him to stay seated. She frowned at him and retorted, "Damn it, Angel: it is important and it is a big deal. I've been really hard on you when you've screwed up, and I need to start caring when things I do hurt the people I love." Angel brightened a bit at the mention of love, but realized quickly that Cordelia was speaking platonically as she continued, "You went out of your way to try to make me happy: the least I can do is try to return the favor. Preferably without apocalyptic consequences." She reached into her purse and pulled out a pink glass bottle, filled with liquid, and handed it to Angel as she concluded quietly, "This is for you."

Angel blinked and stared at the bottle, which looked like the one he had obtained for Cordelia except for the color. He frowned and whispered, "I don't understand."

Cordelia grinned and nudged him as she commented, "Well, let's see: magic potion, designed to prevent the loss of mystic powers during sex. What do you want, a map? It never occurred to you that this might be good for your little problem, too?"

Angel was rather grateful for his inability to blush at that moment, particularly with Cordelia looking at him rather suggestively. He shrugged again, then replied, "I didn't really think about it. There's a lot of magic that works just fine on humans that doesn't have the slightest effect on vampires, and vice versa. Testing it would be a bit tricky, too."

Cordelia nodded, and responded, "No kidding. Which is why I gave Wesley a call and asked him a few questions, and had him check on how the stuff worked." Angel frowned, realizing why Wesley had been giving him odd looks, but dismissed the thought as Cordelia continued: "From what he found out, it was created by an alchemist working for the brothel: score one for good old-fashioned R & D. He made it to work for demons, which was a break for me, since before the change it wouldn't have worked on me, and something designed for humans probably wouldn't work on me any more. Remind me to send Skip a 'thank you' card." Cordelia looked at Angel with a serious expression and added, "Your soul was restored by a magic curse, Angel: this potion will prevent the curse from being broken by anything related to sex or love. We'll still have to be on the lookout for nasty soul sucking guys, or for frustrated actresses spiking your drinks, or probably a whole mess of other things that we don't know about, but we won't have to worry about you losing your soul just because you love someone and want to show them." She smiled at him, and her eyes got visibly moist as she concluded, "So congratulations--now get out of here."

Angel was reeling in shock, and Cordelia's last words made no sense to him. Cordelia looked at him and saw his confusion, and she blew air through her lips in exasperation as she prodded him: "Remember? Buffy-Slayer, love of your life? Waiting back in Sunnydale and dealing with having been dead? Your car is parked out front, full of gas-you could be in Sunnydale in three hours, and doing things that I really don't want to know about in three and a half. So get going-you're wasting time here."

Cordelia watched Angel: he was visibly tensed up, and showed no sign of moving. She sighed, then commented quietly, "Angel, when you explain this to Buffy, you might not want to mention this little period of sitting on your ass doing nothing: it's bound to hurt her feelings." She leaned over and whispered, "Angel, this has to be what you've always wanted: you can be with Buffy, without risking letting Angelus loose or having to give up your responsibilities as a champion. Why aren't you jumping at it?"

Angel looked down, and refused to meet Cordelia's eyes as he replied softly, "Because it's over, Cordelia: it has been for a long time now. It's not just that we couldn't be together-it's that we're both different people than we were when we were together. I didn't want to admit it: even when I visited her after her mother's funeral, I thought there was still a spark there, something that would let us get back what we had if we could just find a way. When she came back, I went to her thinking that I would never let her go again, no matter what I had to do. . .but when we saw each other, it was like someone had taken our past together and locked it away, forever: we both knew it. A year ago, if you had given me the potion I would have been out that door before you uttered another word, but now-I'll always love Buffy, and if she needs me at her side to face something, I'll be there in an instant, to the death if need be. Other than that, she has her life, and I have mine, and I hope she'll find happiness without me: no one I know deserves it more."

Angel stood up, and was turning away when Cordelia grabbed his arm and spun him around as she snapped, "I'm not buying this, Angel. There has to be something more to it than that. You're just giving up, based on what you decided when you thought there was no hope? What, you're too stuffy to go to Sunnydale and tell Buffy, 'All clear to have sex now!'?" She shook her head and added, "I used to think Wesley was a prude, but you've got him beat big time."

Angel silently counted to ten, then glared at Cordelia and grated out, "Cordelia, I'm telling the truth: Buffy and I are over, and your little 'potion of safe orgasms' isn't going to change that. I appreciate what you tried to do, but it just isn't going to happen. I'm sorry."

Cordelia stared at him, then blinked before a look of wicked amusement appeared on her face. She grinned at him and accused: "You're hot for someone else, aren't you? That's what this is all about! You've gotten over Buffy, and there's someone else you'd like to give the potion a shot with." She nudged him playfully and coaxed, "So, c'mon. . .who is it?" Angel was silent, and Cordelia kept smiling for a moment before sobering and asking seriously, "Oh, God, Angel: it isn't Fred, is it? She just got over that crush on you, and I hear that she's making a thing of it with Gunn-I really wish I hadn't made Wesley think he had a shot-"

Angel rolled his eyes, marveling at the mess that Cordelia had inadvertently contributed to, and resolving to stop by to cheer Wesley up when he had given Cordelia and all of her good intentions the slip. He sighed theatrically and responded, "Cordelia, I'm not hung up on Fred, and even if I was I'd never interfere with her and Gunn trying to make a go of it: that would be a terrible thing to do to a friend."

Cordelia smiled at the response and commented, "That's really sweet of you, Angel, but there is someone, isn't there?" Angel was silent, but Cordelia was watching him closely, and she laughed and crowed, "I knew it! Wait, let me guess: you ran into Kate, and she's over-" Cordelia saw Angel scowl, and she broke off in mid-sentence and amended, "No, I guess not. Well, it can't be Rebecca Lowell: she's scared to death of you, and you probably don't want to worry about her deciding that she's willing to do something more drastic than Botox to keep her looks. Or was it--?"

"Cordelia, enough!" Angel was starting to get angry, and he didn't bother to hide it. He turned his back on Cordelia and muttered, "I don't want you to play matchmaker and I don't need a rundown on every woman I've come into contact with in the last three years. Please, just let it alone: I'll be fine."

Angel heard footsteps, and Cordelia moved in front of him, glaring. Angel intentionally kept his expression neutral, but Cordelia was unmoved as she snarled at him: "I'm tired of this, Angel! A lot of the hassles we've had since this all began have happened because you keep things bottled up and won't tell us anything! I'm not going to put up with it any more, particularly when there's no damned good reason for it. I want you to tell me who's got you ready to give up any chance you might ever have with Buffy, and I want you to tell me now, or I am so going to kick your a--!"

It was not anger or longing, but sheer exasperation that caused Angel to reach out with superhuman speed and pull Cordelia into his arms. Cordelia had only an instant to think * I'd forgotten how fast he can move * before she registered that Angel was kissing her, and rather energetically. She relaxed into his embrace, closed her eyes, and returned the kiss with increasing enthusiasm. Abruptly, Angel released her, and Cordelia stumbled momentarily. She regained her balance, and murmured "Hello, salty goodness" before opening her eyes and noticing that Angel was slowly backing up with a guilty expression and with a touch of fear in his eyes. She transfixed him with a calm stare and ordered, "Hold it, Dead Boy." She winced, wondering if the Xanderism had been overkill, but Angel stopped in his tracks and waited, his expression remaining visibly upset. Cordelia sighed, then remarked, "Well, I did ask for it. Now, would you care to explain what just happened? And the threat of ass-kicking: still there."

Angel looked down and muttered, "Cordelia, I'm so sorry. You have to know that I'd never-"

"I didn't ask for an apology, Angel: I want an explanation. I think I deserve that, after all we've been through together." Cordelia's tone was level, and her gaze remained focused on Angel, who remained silent. She frowned, then added, "Whatever you've got to tell me, I'm pretty sure I can take it. Unless it's 'I'm back to being Angelus and I just can't keep my hands off the new demonic Cordy'-that would be a bit disturbing."

Cordelia smiled as Angel involuntarily laughed at the joke, and the smile grew broader as Angel looked up with a somewhat relieved expression. Her eyes still demanded answers, and Angel sighed and sat back down on the bench. Cordelia joined him, and waited patiently as Angel quietly told her about how he had gradually become aware of having feelings for her, first just before the arrival of Darla, then in more recent days. Occasionally, she nodded absently, and a small, secret smile had appeared on her face by the time Angel had brought the narrative up to the present. Angel paused, then concluded with, "Cordelia, I respect the fact that you've chosen to be with Groo. He's a good guy, and you two have that whole karumption thing that Fred and Lorne keep talking about. I'm sure you'll be very happy together." Cordelia's smile grew broader, and a touch of sadness appeared in her eyes as Angel looked around and asked in a puzzled tone, "Where is Groo, anyway? I really don't want your jealous boyfriend ripping the basement apart trying to kill me." Cordelia remained silent, and Angel's expression turned nervous again as he repeated, "Where's Groo, Cordelia?"

"Unless something went wacky with the hot spot at Caritas, he's back in Pylea, on a quest to gather the great heroes of the land." Cordelia's tone was matter-of-fact, and Angel blinked in confusion as Cordelia continued, "I remember enough from my history classes in high school to know that People's Republics aren't always all they're cracked up to be, and when I suggested to him that it might be good to be ready if bad stuff starts happening, he came up with the whole quest idea." She smiled softly and added, "It was really cute how excited he got about it."

Angel stared at her, then whispered, "So, you two-well, what happened happened, then you-"

Cordelia reached into her bag and pulled out the bottle that Angel had brought to her: it was still full and sealed. She smiled wistfully and replied, "What happened didn't happen."

Angel looked at the bottle as if it was the Gem of Amara back in Oz's hand, then shook his head and stated bluntly: "I don't understand."

Cordelia chuckled, then replied, "Join the club." She sighed, then continued, "It started while I was packing for the trip. Groo, bless his honest little heart, was still insisting that you had been the one who saved Fred and Gunn from the tree demon thingie, and I finally called Fred and Gunn. It took a bit of time before they could pry themselves apart long enough for me to get a straight answer, but they confirmed Groo's story, and added a few details that had me wondering if you had other issues besides Groo muscling in on the tall, dark and heroic thing you've had going here." Angel brightened a little at the last comment, provoking a snort from Cordelia that caused him to subside. Cordelia shook her head, then continued, "It made me put a few more things together: those weird conversations we've had that kept getting interrupted by people showing up, the fact that I made Groo up to look like you: I mean, hello, subconscious message much? After I was done, I had pretty much figured out that you might have feelings for me, and once I got past the weirdness of it all, I realized that it didn't seem like such a bad thing. I mean, you're easy on the eyes, you dress well, and you seem to have taken this part demon thing in stride. Oh, and you're one of my best friends and I love you: pretty good combination, when you think about it. But there was the whole curse thing to get around, and I was kind of bummed out until I remembered the potion. I called Wesley, and you know the rest."

Angel was in shock, and it took a few moments before he was able to process Cordelia's words, particularly the "I love you" part. He swallowed hard, then whispered, "What about Groo?"

Cordelia smiled wistfully, then replied, "Groo's great, and I know he loves me, but he's never going to get me, not the way you do. He's in love with the whole heroic me, which is a good thing, but there's more to me than that. Given a choice, I'd rather have you than him: he deserves someone who really wants him first. I sat him down and explained it to him." She frowned, then added, "He accepted it way too easily for me to be flattered very much by it: he kept using that karumption word and saying that it was destiny and all of that annoying crap. Anyway, he's off doing the questing thing, and he'll probably run across some Xena wanna-be who will make him very happy and they'll karumpt off into the sunset together."

Angel noted the mildly annoyed edge to Cordelia's voice, and reached out to squeeze her shoulder before blinking and asking, "Cordelia, if you felt that way, then why would you come back here and practically shove me out the door to go back to Buffy?"

Cordelia glared at him, then looked down at the floor and whispered, "Because I didn't want to be the second choice, either." She sighed, then continued, "I spent my whole time with Xander thinking that if he had the chance, he'd rather be with Buffy than with me, and it ended with him sneaking around with Willow and me having a close encounter with a rebar." She shook her head and added, "I wasn't going to go through that again, Angel: not even for you." Guilt reappeared in Angel's eyes, and Cordelia smiled at him and squeezed his arm as she added, "Besides, you and Buffy went through a lot together. If you still wanted to be with her, I wasn't going to stand in the way of it, no matter how I felt." She smiled and concluded by repeating his earlier words back to him: "That would be a terrible thing to do to a friend."

Angel smiled, then shook his head in wonder and asked quietly, "What happened to the cheerleader I knew who took pride in being the Queen Bitch of Sunnydale High?"

Cordelia looked down demurely, then back up as she replied, "She met a hero, and decided that she liked the life, as annoying as it is at times." She leaned forward and kissed Angel, and he did not hesitate to return the kiss with interest. They stayed like that for a few minutes, and it was Cordelia who pulled back this time before whispering, "Well-"

Angel stood up and replied, "Um, yes, well-now what do we do?"

Cordelia frowned, then looked at the bottle in her hand and responded, "Well, we do have these little bottles-"

Angel nodded absently, then commented, "You know, it might be nice if we actually took things a little more slowly, considering what happened the last times that we did this sort of thing."

Cordelia glared at him, then retorted, "Easy for you to say: you've actually had sex in the last year." Angel just looked at her calmly, and Cordelia glared for a few more seconds before subsiding and grumbling, "Save me from old-fashioned guys. All right, fine: we'll go out for a date first, but I won't be held responsible if I attack you in the restaurant or at the movie theater."

Angel nodded gravely and replied, "I'll be on my guard." He offered her his arm, and they walked out of the basement, their respective bottles resting in Cordelia's bag, ready for their upcoming role in the little drama which had finished its opening act next to the furnace in the hotel.



AUTHOR'S CLOSING COMMENT: I made a point of reading the reactions to "Couplet" in alt.tv.angel over the past week, and incorporated some of them into the plot and dialogue of this story. For this assistance in putting the whole thing together, my thanks.




As before, comments are welcome and desired.